An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
The Seeds of Inspiration
I've been an avid reader my entire life, preferring books over any other form of entertainment. I enjoy other media like movies and TV shows, but nothing has ever drawn me in as much as a good book. I remember reading full-length novels written for adults back in 4th grade and have some memories of enjoying epic fantasy novels even before that. I tried some of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, and, while fun, I thought they were somewhat limiting.
When I was very young, sometime around 3rd or 4th grade, I stayed with my aunt and uncle in South Carolina. My uncle had an IBM PCjr and introduced me to a world of games that I'd never known before. I think the first one I played was the original King's Quest by Sierra Entertainment. It turned me into a life-long fan of the genre.
There was something magical about being the protagonist in a world with some verisimilitude. Of course, I'd played other games, but those were mainly arcade action types. There wasn't a lot of thinking involved in games like Super Mario Bros. or Pac-Man, and the story, if there was any, was only a backdrop for the art style presented on a half-page in the manual. Adventure games, though, were different.
As I got older, I began seeking out more games with stories. Some of the games I found had a massive impact on my life's direction. There were two main types of games that hooked me: 1) adventure games because of their stories and 2) horror games because of the aesthetics.
The entire catalog of adventure games by Sierra On-Line filled a need for stories and puzzles in my life, in addition to other games like Maniac Mansion. In the future, in my weekly newsletter Into Horror History, I'll be writing about Phantasmagoria, a point-and-click horror adventure game from 1995. Phantasmagoria had imagery strong enough to be banned in a few countries and stirred up controversy around computer software rating systems.
Thank you to Roberta and Ken Williams for making all those games. These games spawned an interest in computer programming and, later in life, sent me into that career path. Also, thank you, Jane Jensen, for creating everything you have as well. I've loved your work from Gabriel Knight: Sins of Fathers all the way to the present, especially Gray Matter.
Around the year 2000, I was facing some turbulent life decisions, and I picked up a game with a story unlike anything I'd ever experienced.
Everything about The Longest Journey resonated with me at a time in my life when I needed it. There are now three games in the series, by the way, and they are all fantastic. I even had the chance to join the Kickstarter for the second one called Dreamfall.
Ever since I became an avid reader and fan of adventure games, I have always wondered what it would be like to be inside one of the stories. As a kid, Nintendo kind of fueled this part of my imagination when they ran a contest in their Nintendo Power magazine where the grand prize was a real adventure on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands—complete with costumes and a mystery to solve.
I didn't win that contest, and I could never find out who did and what it was like. But the idea stuck with me. What would it be like to wake up one day and find yourself inside of a story? There were so many things from my childhood that touched on this idea, like the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, where six friends get pulled from their everyday lives into the world of D&D.
Eventually, EverQuest came along, and I was able to immerse myself in a world so thoroughly that, at times, it didn't feel like a video game. World of Warcraft did that as well. Those MMORPGs had parts of the world with a particular horror feel, but neither was a full-on horror experience.
For EverQuest, I still remember the thrill of running around in Castle Mistmoore with my enchanter under an invisibility spell—I think I was around level 12, so everything in that zone could easily have kicked my ass (or running the wall in Kithicor Forest at night).
For WoW, my spouse Tae and I liked to stalk Stitches on the road to Darkshire in Duskwood.
A few years ago, I stumbled across The Mysterious Package Company. If you've never heard of them, you should check them out. Essentially, you can buy "experiences" for yourself or other people that get mailed out. Some of them even come in wooden crates. Each one is a story and a series of puzzles to solve. I was excited when they started up and what they do is interesting. It is limited in a way, though, because it's not really interactive.
I don't recall precisely when, but as an adult, I happened across a movie released in 1997 called The Game, starring Michael Douglas. I won't spoil it if you haven't seen it, other than to say that it hit on the theme of playing out a game in real life. The movie got filed away somewhere in the back of my brain along with those other things like that Final Fantasy Treasure Quest summer island adventure.
If you go watch this movie, drop me a line and let me know what you think. I very rarely meet anyone who has even heard of it.
At some point, escape rooms became a thing. I was so excited when these started to open up. Unfortunately, I tried several but was disappointed every time. Like old arcade video games, they have a story that only serves as a backdrop for the style. Worse than that, each seems to quickly devolve into a series of combination padlocks with somewhat unimaginative puzzle designs to find the number combinations.
I've also checked out immersive theater shows. I like them, but there's only so much you can do with a crowd. I try out anything I stumble across that seems like an opportunity to get inside of a story in real life. It's never really worked, though, so I've never had a chance to be inside of an adventure story.
In late 2016, when my friend Zarina sent me a letter in the mail with a puzzle to solve, it ignited a firestorm of all this adventure/horror/immersive fuel that had been building in my head for decades. If I couldn't be in one of these stories, I could make one for someone else. Zarina gave me the perfect opportunity to take something I've always wanted to do but never had the chance. After all, who the hell is crazy enough to put the immense amount of time and effort into creating an immersive story for one person?
"I'm not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours."
― Lewis Carroll
Answer: me. With a huge assist from my spouse Tae, of course.
Want to see how Absolution started?
That right there is how the story of Absolution started. But the seeds of inspiration were gathered over my entire life. I'd stashed them away, not really knowing if I'd ever use them for anything.
I didn't know what it would turn into when I scribbled that down in a notepad. What type of game or story was I going to create exactly? I didn't give it any thought at the time—I just wanted to create something fun. But, years later, I've done some research and found a few things. Absolution seems to fall under the broad umbrella of Unfiction. It's not quite an Alternate Reality Game as it doesn't fit the basic design principles like designing for the hive mind as there was no hive; it was only Zarina. Single-player ARG? Perhaps. Certainly some kind of transmedia storytelling—but it's more than that, as the very definition of transmedia storytelling limits it to digital technologies—Absolution had no such limitation.
Transmedia storytelling (also known as transmedia narrative or multiplatform storytelling) is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies.
—Transmedia storytelling on Wikipedia
This is why I've had so much trouble explaining to people what it was or how it worked. Maybe there's a good, fitting term for it, maybe not. Even if there is, though, most people wouldn't be familiar with the concept. It's one of the reasons why I put it up on my website because I believe experiencing it, as much as possible, through the eyes of Zarina was the only real way for people to understand it.